First, the good news: It's not a sequel to the Sandra Bullock rehab comedy "28 Days." (Even smart people have been confused!) Now, the better news: It's a quality horror flick of the sort we're promised once or twice a year, but genuinely receive maybe four times per decade.
Moving on from the loo-swimming junkies of "Trainspotting," director Danny Boyle fixes his lens on the apocalypse. As his new movie begins, animal-rights activists mistakenly "liberate" a lab full of chimps infected with a virus that causes instant, ultraviolent dementia. Then the screen goes black. A little less than a month later (guess how many days?), a bicycle courier (Cillian Murphy) wakes in a deserted hospital, finding not only the institution abandoned, but (apparently) all of London as well. The sight of Murphy wandering down an utterly desolate Bridge Street sets an eerie tone that's maintained throughout the film. (One can only wonder at the logistics involved in such a simulated evacuation. "All right, mates. Danny Boyle fancies makin' a movie. Now shove off!")
As Murphy's Jim soon learns, the UK isn't exactly unpopulated: The quiet streets hide nests of "the infected," bloodthirsty psychopaths who live only to kill. Fortunately, a handful of fellow survivors (including the great Brendan Gleeson) are also out there, and they help Jim stay alive long enough to determine if polite civilization survives anywhere in the country -- or even on the planet.
As written for the screen by Alex Garland (author of the book that inspired Boyle's bomb "The Beach"), "28 Days Later" has no implications beyond the obvious -- violence is a disease, ethics are mutable in times of "war," yadda yadda yadda. But the sheer finesse of the enterprise makes it all worthwhile. Boyle effectively balances the overriding stillness with moments of sharp shock. The virus sufferers don't shuffle zombielike toward their prey; they run at them at full clip. They also have a habit of puking up a bit of blood (it's a Boyle flick, after all), but on the whole, mood and subtlety predominate.
Comparisons to George A. Romero's living-dead trilogy are inevitable, but thematically, the film owes even more to Romero's ill-fated "The Crazies," in which an experimental germ inspired similar mass psychosis. The inheritance is deserved. "28 Days Later" doesn't just cop the moves of intelligent horror; it reanimates them for a new generation.
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